Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Friend Remembers Shirley

I am sitting here in my living room looking at “The Pots” and “Flowers,” remembering the artist, Shirley Dahlke Erickson, with happiness and love.  I am blessed to have known her.

1958 –  was the year we I moved to Mount Prospect and had the good fortune to buy the house on George Street, next door to the Erickson’s.  
Picture this:  I, eight months pregnant, struggling to get a portfolio out of the truck; suddenly interrupted by the presence of a tall, slim, auburn – haired beauty who had just leapt the fence between our houses while calling out a two-word challenge:

“Who paints?”

”Me,” I replied.

Landsman,” Shirley cried,

and with a great, big hug our friendship began.

During the spring and summer of 1959 Shirley and I found it possible to gather up our five children, (who, at the time ranged in age from five months to five years) for a full day each week, entrusting them to the care of Mrs. Busse, a  neighbor, as we two roamed all over Cook County sketching.  Our subjects included everything from a Victorian cemetery to Dear Love Farm (said, at the time, to be the last working farm in Park Ridge).  “The Flowers” dates from those months.
In January, 1960 my husband was transferred back to his company’s New York office.  We moved to Ridgewood, New Jersey.

Don’s architectural career was growing rapidly as he added new clients for residential work, and responded to inquiries for commercial projects (including at least one Las Vegas casino of unique design).  Don and Shirley traveled to New York for the opening of the 1963 World’s Fair and to see the completed Singer Bowl, for which Don had designed major modifications. My husband and I had the pleasure of hosting their overnight stay in New Jersey.
In spite of all that transpired in our own lives over the next six years, Shirley and I remained in touch – mostly through letters or an occasional phone call (usually triggered by what I believe must have been E.S.P. which told us, “it’s time for a call,” which it usually was).
Our letters were focused more on our painting than our families.  Shirley’s observations – her detailed descriptions of old farm houses, canyons, peoples’ faces, or just of light – a particular light falling on a flower, for instance, helped me to understand what she was about (and, I hope, vice-versa).  Just as Shirley helped me to perceive detail, she was always gracious enough to say that I had helped her to be a bit freer with her composition!  

In 1966, my family and I began a series of summer vacations in Land O’ Lakes, Wisconsin, at the invitation of George’s step-mother.  Invariably, we’d stop enroute to visit with the Ericksons, first, at their new house in Barrington; again, shortly after its destruction by a tornado the following year, and, for a third time, as guests at the house-warming following its’ reconstruction.  “The Pots” dates from this time (it seems I’d helped Shirley plant the flowers during our visit the previous summer; apparently we’d left the garden without picking up; the pots remained, undisturbed, where we’d dropped them, while the plants just took hold despite the mayhem surrounding them and bloomed in full glory).  The commemoration of such divergent events was captured for me by Shirley’s beautiful pastel.

Following Shirley’s divorce, we made brief stops at Farwa Farm on the way north through Wisconsin.  By that time, our younger daughter, had fallen fully and forever in love with horses.  Although she was scared to death by Shirley’s spirited Arabian stallion, El Cordobez, our daughter was eager to learn about barn routines and the infinite details of caring for horses. Although she went on to earn a baccalaureate degree in equine studies and, now, with twenty-five years’ professional experience, is a respected  barn manager, working with Grand Prix hunters and jumpers, it can be said that our daughter’s career was greatly influenced by her teen-age working summer with “Aunt Shirley” at Farwa Farm!

Our daughter has taken custody of  “Bye-Bye Birdie,” painted (not without some humor and a good deal of empathy for some long-ago child) of a deceased blue jay, replete with crossed Popsicle sticks to most fully commemorate the creature’s passage.  And, she also owns two prints from Shirley’s series of wild birds native to Wisconsin.  She treasures them.

As time passed, our trips to Wisconsin became fewer.  Meanwhile, the scope of Shirley’s life and work had expanded to include her years in the Southwest.  Shirley’s letters, and our telephone conversations, however, continued, up to within a few weeks of her death. We were fortunate to see some of her later work, including the affecting series of Wisconsin farm houses, the Native American portraits, the western  landscapes and the still life studies. I regret having missed so much of those years, productive despite her failing health   
I shall miss Shirley more than I can say.  I have lost a great friend.  The greatest pleasure I can imagine would be just one more letter or another phone conversation. We’ve still got so much more to talk about!
New Jersey
June 16, 2011

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